Tasting tomorrow: Adapting heritage cuisine for a changing climate

A close up of a stew containing meat, vegetables and beans

Olla podrida is a traditional Spanish stew. Tepary beans, which are native to the Sonoran Desert, could be a future substitute for the Spanish red beans that the recipe normally calls for as the climate in Spain becomes more like Tucson's.

As climate change continues to affect conditions for growing local ingredients, a bite of your favorite hometown dish could taste a little different in the future. But heritage cuisine, and the culture and sense of community that come with them, may live on with the help of a new University of Arizona-led project called Tasting Tomorrow.

In about 50 years, climate scientists expect that the climate in the city of Burgos, in northern Spain, will resemble Tucson's hot, dry climate today. At the same time, Tucson's climate is expected to be more similar to that of the central Australian desert. Shifting climates around the world have the potential to change growing conditions for some native crops, in some cases forcing them out completely.

Finding substitutions for native crops in recipes will become necessary to preserve local, traditional cuisine, said Jonathon Keats, a research associate at the UArizona Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill.

Two men on stage cooking

James Beard award-winning chef Janos Wilder and Tasting Tomorrow project lead Jonathon Keats preparing the traditional Spanish stew olla podrida on stage at the 2022 Pueblos del Maiz food celebration in Tucson

Jonathan Mabry

Keats – an artist, writer and experimental philosopher – and his collaborators created the Tasting Tomorrow project to allow people to share knowledge about native ingredients in an effort to preserve and adapt traditional recipes and food preparation knowledge.

Visitors to the Tasting Tomorrow website can enter their hometown and information about a locally grown, plant-based ingredient, including how it's prepared, what part of it is used in recipes, what it tastes like, its texture and any other important details. Other site users, in locations that might one day have a similar climate, can access the information to assess if that ingredient could be adapted for their own traditional recipes.

Still in its early stages, the site currently includes only plant-based ingredients, although Keats plans to expand on ingredient categories in the future. He is also working to increase the number and diversity of visitors who contribute to the site.

Based on the ingredients already shared, Keats has been leading workshops in different cities on making family cookbooks filled with climate-adapted recipes. The next workshop will at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico in August.

"By giving people a taste of tomorrow, we're simultaneously doing two distinct but equally important things," Keats said. "One is to prepare for the future reality of climate change, and the other is to mitigate that change by highlighting how it will affect people in a personal way."

Keats and his team – which includes Erin Riordan, a UArizona ecologist; Matt Fitzpatrick, associate director for research at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; Rob Dunn, a professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University; and freelance web designer Angelabelle Barrientos – developed a method to identify places in the world today that will have similar climates, including temperature and rainfall patterns, as other locations in the future.

"As the climate changes, we are potentially not only facing catastrophic destruction in terms of physical infrastructure, but also cultural infrastructure. This is doubly important because cultural infrastructure is essential when times get tough," Keats said. "With our approach, your heritage cuisine could be preserved over the long term, even if you no longer live in climate conditions suitable for growing your heritage ingredients. We want to share the kinds of substitutions that could be made to sustain a sense of identity and community that comes from those heritage flavors."

Keats and his collaborators teamed up with Janos Wilder, a local James Beard Award-winning chef who helped establish Tucson as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in recognition of the city's rich culinary culture and history. Wilder developed recipes with climate-adapted ingredients for Burgos, Spain, another City of Gastronomy, which may someday have a climate like Tucson's.

Wilder modified a recipe for a stew called olla podrida, which traditionally calls for Spanish red beans that will likely not grow in Spain 50 years from now, Keats said. Tepary beans, native to the Sonoran Desert, are very well-adapted to drought conditions, making them an excellent substitution for Spanish red beans, Keats said.

Allowing users to share not only ingredients but tips for cooking and handling them is an important feature of the Tasting Tomorrow website, Keats said.

"If you cook tepary beans the way you cook Spanish red beans, you're not going to get the flavor, and you're probably going to have an upset stomach," Keats said.

Wilder also adapted a Burgos recipe for blood sausage. But instead of using rice as a binder, he substituted locally grown Sonoran white wheat berries.

"This substitution works remarkably well," Keats said. "And what makes it interesting is that these wheat berries were originally brought to the desert Southwest by Spanish missionaries. So, in a sense, this recipe has come full circle."

Wilder and Keats also assessed how traditional dishes in Tucson might be adapted in the future.

A traditional Tohono O'odham soup called 'atol calls for a specific kind of locally grown squash called ha:l. The team suspects that a desert yam found in central Australia could potentially be used in place of the squash.

"We haven't gotten our hands on it yet, but what we did learn is that the yam is highly toxic unless you cook it in the right way," said Keats, adding that the yam requires days of soaking before you can cook with it.

"Sharing these recipes and tips is a way for people to act together, establishing a sense of shared purpose," Keats said. "Food is very much a medium through which to practice generosity, both locally and globally, as we go through potentially catastrophic change."

The Tasting Tomorrow website was funded by a C/Change grant from the Goethe-Institut San Francisco, a German cultural institute, in collaboration with the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco.

Next, Keats and his team are translating the Tasting Tomorrow concept to architecture, with a website that will allow for sharing knowledge about how to build traditional homes adapted to certain climates. The initiative relies on the same methodology and many of the same people as the Tasting Tomorrow project, Keats said. The Climate-Adapted Architectural Heritage initiative recently received pilot funding for a series of workshops in Germany, and the Fraunhofer Network, a German research organization, awarded the team more than $110,000 to develop the project over the next three years.

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